“It does not matter how slow you go so long as you do not stop.” —Confucius
I’ve always known that Asian cultures revere the elderly. What I didn’t realize until recently, when I traveled to China to adopt a child, is that elderly Asians revere their own longevity and embrace their twilight years in a way Americans often do not.
During an early-morning sightseeing visit to Beijing’s Temple of Heaven Park, a former imperial garden northwest of the Forbidden City, I saw, perhaps predictably, scores of mostly elderly people lined up under a grove of oaks, practicing the slow, flowing motions of tai chi. Beyond that, nothing I observed was predictable.
A few steps down the path, several dozen pairs waltzed to a lilting tune emitting from a 1980s-style boom box. Next to them, a few small groups played what was essentially hackey sack with a large feathered shuttlecock, while others engaged in a net-less version of badminton. On the other side of the waltzers, a middle-aged man demonstrated his skill with an enormous bullwhip, occasionally offering passersby a crack at it themselves. Not far beyond him, about 100 people—men and women—shook their hips in a Chinese-ified Zumba-style workout, albeit in a manner more reserved than the salsa-inspired fitness craze raging among younger adults in the U.S.
Throughout the park, older people gathered for these and other community activities: Some played cards, some walked together, a brave few donned inline skates. The sheer numbers amazed me, but I was even more surprised to discover that this phenomenon is not unique to this park—it takes place daily all throughout urban China.
“It’s a Chinese tradition to promote this kind of activity and to be social—they’re taught it from childhood,” says Danan Gu, Ph.D., a former Duke University research scientist who found in a 2008 study that elderly Chinese people with solid social networks lived longer and were healthier and happier than those who were isolated or just had family connections.
Even much of the playground equipment in Chinese parks is designed more for adults to exercise—simple, non-electronic treadmills and ellipticals; upper-body workout machines; ping-pong tables—than for children to play on while adults watch. Many park activities involve singing—several people around a boom box with a plug-in microphone for impromptu (and cocktail-free) karaoke or a group assembled to sing choir-style from sheet music or songs written on butcher paper and hung up on a clothesline strung from trees. Other park-goers fish or attract crowds by painting messages on the ground with water, a writing method Chinese people once used to communicate politically unpopular sentiments because the words evaporate without a trace. “For the Chinese, [these activities] are a practical lifestyle to protect their health,” Gu says.
Even if you don’t see yourself playing pickup hackey sack or doing pull-ups on the monkey bars any time soon, you can still tap into this Chinese wisdom to stay healthy and improve your quality of life, regardless of your age. Here’s how:
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
As much as America is an “I” and “my” society, in China the focus is on “we” and “our.” “Chinese people are more likely to bond themselves to others,” Gu says. “The emotional support from their social networks relieves stress and helps their biological systems.” The benefits of that group-think mentality are verified by research.
MAKE IT HAPPEN: Recruit a neighbor or coworker for a daily walk, sign up for a rec sport team (kickball, anyone?—visit kifac.org), join a U.S. Masters swim team (usms.org), try group rides organized by your local bike shop or commit to a fitness class (if you aren’t a gym member, check out gorecess.com for ideas).
FORM A HABIT
In a 2007 study, Gu found that Chinese people over 65 lowered their mortality risk by 20 to 30 percent if they exercised daily. Can’t do it daily? Multiple studies, including a 2013 paper in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, show that one or two activity sessions per week can be as
effective as more frequent exercise if the intensity and duration are equivalent.
MAKE IT HAPPEN: Plan activity sessions in advance, put them on your calendar and commit to them as if they were work appointments. If you just can’t stick with it, visit gym-pact.com and put cash on the line: Set an activity goal—get paid if you meet it, pay others if you don’t.
In Chinese culture, morning air is considered important for health, Gu says. And taking your workout outdoors may enhance its benefits. A 2011 study in Environmental Science and Technology found that outdoor exercise made people feel more energized and better helped them shed stress, depression, confusion and anger than did indoor workouts. They were also more likely to repeat the activity than
those who worked out indoors.
MAKE IT HAPPEN: Join gociety.com, a Colorado-conceived social network that connects outdoor-minded adventurers—seasoned pros and newbies—who want to meet new people and try new things.
LOSE YOUR INHIBITIONS
While I strolled through the Chinese parks, I marveled at how un-self-conscious the people seemed to be. In contrast, Americans often shy away from new activities for fear of what people might think of our rookie performances. But trying new things can help both body and brain, challenging your muscles
in fresh ways and creating new pathways in your mind—both of which research shows are especially important as you age.
MAKE IT HAPPEN: Visit a climbing gym, join a ballroom dancing class, try a new sport. Find adult rec teams at socialandsportsclub.com and meetup.com.